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A Matter of Degrees: Recognizing Achievements of Military Linguists

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Updated: 2:35 PM, 11/13/2019*

Legislation to Award Bachelor of Arts to Defense Language Institute Graduates

Among those who have fought for this country, there are thousands of polyglots who have used their multilingual abilities in service to the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines— both on base and on the battlefield. These translators, known in military parlance as linguists, have been indispensable members of the US Armed Forces for decades. There is currently a crucial piece of House legislation in subcommittee that could benefit their career trajectories. 

HR 3185, the Defense Language Improvement Act (DLIA), aims to authorize the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC) to award a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree to the military linguists it trains. The main DLIFLC is located in Monterey, CA and is the DoD’s premier center for world language education. Since its inception in 1941, it has trained over 230,000 students, mostly military linguists and some members of the intelligence community. 

The institution is known for teaching mission-critical languages at a fast pace. Language and culture training at DLIFLC is known for very high attrition rate. Despite its rigor, the DLIFLC offers only an Associate of Arts (AA) degree. If DLIFLC offered a BA, it would allow military linguists who enlisted without a Bachelor’s degree to leave the service with one.

John-Rick Dudley, a former Navy linguist and 2009 DLIFLC graduate who earned an AA in Arabic Studies while there, is clear on this issue. Congress needs to move this bill forward and turn the DLIFLC into a BA-granting institution.

“[DLIA] is a brilliant idea that should have been implemented at least a decade ago. The vast majority of military linguists are college dropouts who have incredible aptitude, and yet the simple lack of a Bachelor's degree often prevents them from transitioning from successful military careers with invaluable experience to government civilian life,” says the Navy veteran.  

According to data provided by the DLI Academic Affairs Office, just under 75% of enrolled students reported that they had not received a college degree, while the remaining 25% of students reported earning earned an advanced degree. 

John-Rick Dudley is a former Navy linguist and current student at Georgetown University

Passage of the DLIA would give full academic recognition to the highly intensive language training that military linguists undergo. The DLIA gives DLIFLC’s language and cultural training the same weight as the undergraduate language degrees that thousands of civilian students earn every year. 

Dudley served honorably for nearly a decade as a military linguist, and was able to matriculate into an accelerated Bachelor’s-Master’s program focusing on linguistics at Georgetown University. While he is currently applying his DLI-taught skills at a defense contractor position while he completes his degrees, Dudley notes that he “could have been a tremendous asset (not to mention a more cost-effective one) to the government if I had been able to make the transition directly to government civilian [work] by satisfying the BA requirement with my initial training.” 

Military linguists like Dudley leave the military without the transitional benefits a BA could bring. In the view of Dudley and many veteran linguists like him, the intensive language training at DLIFLC is equivalent to, or even more rigorous than, a world language BA program typically offered to civilians.

DLIFLC is located in the congressional district of the DLIA’s sponsor, Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D, CA-20). Panetta asserts that “the students at DLIFLC gain foreign language proficiency and cultural immersion that they could not achieve anywhere else,” and thus provides an education certainly worthy of a BA. Panetta claims that turning the DLIFLC into a BA-granting institution “provides advanced learning opportunities, supports recruitment and reenlistment initiatives, and incentivizes higher level language learning to better support defense, intelligence, and law enforcement requirements.”

The promise of a BA granted during service indeed incentivizes recruitment for military linguist positions. In turn, more military and intelligence linguists are needed to fill a major language gap currently seen in the armed forces and intelligence community. An increase in linguists means an increase in national security. 

This message is echoed by many of the bill’s co-sponsors, including Rep. Jason Crow (D, CO-6): “The Defense Language Improvement Act is a commonsense fix…In our increasingly interconnected world, incentivizing higher level language learning is not just an asset, it is a necessity for national defense.” Rep. Austin Scott (R, GA-8) agrees that “the study of languages and linguistics at the Defense Language Institute...enhance the national security of our great nation.” 

The bill’s other cosponsors include Reps. Gil Cisneros (D, CA-39), Andy Kim (D, NJ-3), David Price (D, NC-4), Don Young (R, AK-0), Don Bacon (R, NE-2), Brian Fitzpatrick (R, PA-1), Elise Stefanik (R, NY-21), and presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard (D, HI-2).  The bill was included in the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020, which is in conference committee. The DLIA was not, however, included in the Senate’s version of the NDAA. 

This Veteran’s Day, JNCL-NCLIS encourages language advocates to reach out to your members of congress, and show your support for the Defense Language Improvement Act. This is a bill that not only bolsters our national security, but provides a tangible educational and professional benefit for military linguists.

From the editor: Originally this article stated that DLI offered Somali and Kurmanji; those languages are no longer offered (

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